Let’s go around the Round Table and answer five key questions about the game.
What should we read out of Louisville’s performance (or lack thereof) against Syracuse last week?
Kyle: That their quarterback Malik Cunningham is still an incredibly dangerous weapon. As was mentioned in the preview piece, UCF head coach Gus Malzahn recruited this guy in his coaching days at Auburn for a reason. Did he throw a couple of picks? — Yes. But his completion percentage was still over 70%. While Syracuse winning 31-7 certainly wasn’t an expectation, clearly the Cardinals did as much to lose it as the Orange did to win it.
Andrew: Louisville is a wounded animal and wounded animals are dangerous. They played a bad game, but there are numbers within it that should be cause for some concern. Malik Cunningham threw above a 70% completion rate. That means when he has the time to pick his spots, he can make the throws. We already know what he can do with his legs. That hasn’t changed. UCF cannot let Louisville’s bad game distract them.
Bryson: Last week proved Louisville’s fallibility, as well as the talent that lies on the Syracuse defense. Malik Cunningham had an over 70% completion percentage and the Orange secondary still limited him to 152 passing yards, even forcing a couple of fumbles and nabbing a pair of interceptions. I don’t think anyone expected the Syracuse offense to overcome the Louisville defense as much as they did, but the key matchup is still going to be Malik Cunningham against the UCF defense. Though, I think Syracuse gave the Knights a solid example to follow.
After his performance in the opener, what do you want to see out of John Rhys Plumlee in this game?
Kyle: Continued poise. While the man they call JRP was delivering surgical strikes while taking hits in the victory over SCSU to open the season, in my mind it seems almost inevitable that UCF will commit at least one turnover at a time while the game is still up for grabs. What I want to see is can John Rhys Plumlee respond with the same controlled desire after a giveaway that had him sprinting down the field in what coach Malzahn call the play of the game where he cleared the lane for wide receiver Ryan O’Keefe to make the touchdown-saving tackle.
Andrew: I want no turnovers. There was the fumble that bounced off a lineman’s helmet that nearly ended up in a scoop-and-score, but other than that, it was pretty clean. Wanting no turnovers also means no bad decisions, which includes throwing downfield into double coverage. If the spot isn’t there, don’t take it. I also want to see Plumlee slide more. There is always a moment where your heart stops when you see the quarterback lower his shoulder into a hit. All it takes is one play to end a season and with my personal anecdote with shoulder injuries, it’s just not worth risking the injury. Slide and live to play another down.
Bryson: Just like last week, I want to see him walk away from this game unscathed. The memories of Dillon Gabriel are still fresh in this fanbase’s memories and I’d very much like to avoid a retread, especially against the same team. Plumlee himself admitted last week that he needed to practice self-preservation a little more, so I’d like to see him follow through on that.
As for his performance itself, I want to see Plumlee rise up to the challenge. He needs to prove he can bounce back from mistakes (if some are made) and shore up on his execution in the passing department. Louisville won’t let him get away with things that he could get away with against South Carolina State.
What’s going to be the key for the UCF defense against Malik Cunningham?
Kyle: Discipline in the young linebacking crops paired with Justin Hodges at the Knight position. Expect Cunningham to be dared to throw the ball while being drowned in run blitzes. If Louisville’s field general is allowed to escape and extend the play, that’s where Hodges will be asked to save the day from the “Knight” position. If that fails, expect that to be the beginning of a big play for the Cardinals.
Andrew: I’ve been saying since the end of the last game, that UCF should utilize Justin Hodges as a spy. At the “Knight” position, which is a linebacker/defensive back hybrid, you have a player in Hodges who has the speed to keep up, the tackling ability to pull Cunningham down, and the mind of a safety who can avoid biting on fakes. UCF’s defensive line can do their thing and force Cunningham to step up in the pocket. The linebackers have the knowledge to split the field coverage and the defensive backs are talented enough to hang one-on-one with the Cardinals receivers. Is this a big gamble by dedicating a player to spy? Yes. Does UCF have a bad history with dual threat quarterbacks? Yes. UCF can’t afford for Cunningham to bust loose.
Bryson: Elaborating on what I said in the first question, Syracuse gave the Knights a very solid blueprint on how you defeat Malik Cunningham: get him to play from behind.
Last season’s matchup between the Knights and Cardinals never had more than a single touchdown lead. By contrast, Syracuse got out to a two-score lead in the second quarter and since that happened Cunningham proceeded to turn the ball over on downs in the red zone, fumble the ball twice, and throw two interceptions.
Kyle and Drew’s answers are great for the team to get that initial jump at the beginning of the game, but should that succeed, the defense needs to watch for Cunningham to start taking risks to get back in the game and make him pay for it in order to truly finish the job.
How big is the revenge factor here?
Kyle: Player and coach alike have been open and honest about it all week that this was one marked on the calendar. Players who participated in the game last year feel like they should have won Week 2 on the road 366 days previous to this match-up in the Bounce House this season — and it shows.
Andrew: This is the first leg of the UCF Revenge Tour. This game and Navy are the ones that got away and for those who were on the team last year, it’s been eating at them. They get a shot at the once again and with a healthy team, the sky’s the limit to where this season can go.
Bryson: If life worked like a movie, once the Knights and their fans saw Louisville on the schedule, this would probably be the music playing in the background.
Last year’s game was within reach, but the team just came up short. That would already be enough of a revenge factor in and of itself. However, Louisville didn’t just win a close game, they arguably changed the course of the 2021 season. Isaiah Bowser, Dillon Gabriel, Jaylon Robinson, and Ricky Barber all sustained long-term injuries in this game. So, not only do the players want to prove themselves after coming up short last time, it’s also a chance to avenge the 2021 season that could have been had the Cardinals not debilitated them as much as they did.
Kyle: Considering it’s hard to know what to expect from either of these teams, I could be wrong. But I have 37-30 in favor of Louisville. The Cardinals may not be the better team overall, but they present a very unique matchup problem for the Knights.
Andrew: 28-17 UCF. Louisville only scoring seven against Syracuse is an aberration. They’ll score more, but the Knights are at home and that matters.
Bryson: I think the Knights will put up a close fight like they do all the time against Louisville, but I don’t know if the team can pull off jumping out to the early lead that I think they need to make Cunningham uncomfortable. So, fully hoping I end up being wrong, I think Louisville takes it, 38-35, thanks to a late-game field goal.